Citing federal backing, Colorado governor says funding vote for passenger rail on track for 2024

December 15, 2023, 3:00 pm

Gov. Jared Polis speaks at an event in Denver Dec. 13 formally announcing the Front Range Passenger Rail District’s inclusion in a federal development program (Chase Woodruff/Colorado Newsline).

Colorado Gov. Jared Polis and the nation’s top railroad official joined other state and local leaders in Denver on Wednesday to mark the completion of a “very important step” in the long-running effort to restore passenger rail service between most of the state’s largest cities.

“The fact is that Coloradans are ready for Front Range rail,” Polis, standing beside a map of a newly finalized route, said at an event at History Colorado. “I would argue we were ready five or 10 years ago, but we’re certainly ready now.”

After meeting with Polis and Colorado transportation officials during a multi-day visit this week, Amit Bose, the administrator of the Federal Railroad Administration, formally announced the Front Range Passenger Rail District’s acceptance into the agency’s Corridor Identification and Development Program. The inclusion comes with a $500,000 planning grant as part of the program’s goal to create a “pipeline of projects ready for implementation and future investment,” Bose said.

“At FRA, we want our investments to directly benefit communities and improve lives,” Bose added. “And today’s announcement will advance those efforts and ensure more Coloradans have access to world-class passenger rail.”

Most of Colorado’s intercity passenger rail lines went out of service in the 1970s. Today, only a pair of long-haul Amtrak lines serve a handful of its cities: the California Zephyr, which stops once daily in Denver, Grand Junction and several other mountain towns on its way between Chicago and San Francisco, and the Southwest Chief, a Chicago-to-Los Angeles route that passes through La Junta and Trinidad.

State lawmakers established the Front Range Passenger Rail District in 2021, tasking its 17 commissioners with developing a new vision for fast, frequent service between Fort Collins and Pueblo — and giving the board the authority to eventually ask voters along the Interstate 25 corridor to approve a tax to fund the new passenger line’s construction and operation.

Andy Karsian, FRPR’s general manager, estimated Wednesday that the project would cost between $2 billion and $6 billion, depending on the level of service, and the line could be operational “within the next decade.”

He and other officials say that after decades of planning, the project is closer to reality than ever before thanks to the 2021 passage of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, also known as the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law. It included $66 billion for freight and passenger rail projects and led to the creation of the FRA’s Corridor ID program. Front Range Passenger Rail District commissioners voted Dec. 11 to recommend a route for the planned passenger line that runs north from Denver’s Union Station through Boulder and downtown Loveland. (FRPR)

“We’re going to be quantifying and listening to what those those corridor capital needs are, working with our host railroads, establishing who our operators will be,” Karsian said. “Making those concrete decisions on what is necessary in order to realize passenger rail service here in the state in the short future — so that none of us will walk away and be regretful that we missed an opportunity that we see in front of us today.”

In a board meeting on Monday, FRPR commissioners voted again to recommend a route for the proposed line that runs north from Denver’s Union Station through Boulder, Longmont and downtown Loveland before reaching Fort Collins, opting against alternatives that passed instead through western Larimer County or Greeley.

Voters in the FRPR district, which encompasses all or part of 13 Front Range counties, could be asked to approve a tax funding the project as soon as next year.

“There’s a lot of work that needs to be done, but we also recognize that in big projects like this, timing is everything,” Karsian said. “So we are looking hard at 2024 for a ballot measure.”

Polis said that passenger rail service is a “key component” of his administration’s plans to increase the supply of housing, reduce air pollution and encourage alternative modes of transportation. And he reiterated the urgency behind Colorado’s plans as other cities and states look to compete for a limited pot of federal funding.

“We’ve done the work to put Colorado in a strong position, but now we need to really build on that momentum,” Polis said. “Because we know, and Administrator Bose knows, that there’s a few other states that are also looking at these opportunities. And we need to make sure that Colorado is one of them that comes to fruition.”

Editor’s note: This story first appeared on Colorado Newsline, which is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Colorado Newsline maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Quentin Young for questions: Follow Colorado Newsline on Facebook and Twitter.

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